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Reflection on my recent trip to Israel

03/24/2017 10:42:32 AM


Reflections on my trip to Israel

As most of you know, I returned earlier this week from a whirlwind trip to Israel. I want to share with you a few reflections on my experience running the Jerusalem Marathon and joining Ruth for the sentencing of the terrorist that killed our dear Ezra h”yd.

I arrived in Israel on Thursday night and immediately joined the pre-race pasta party for the 175 runners who were raising funds to support the Hope Time Cure Epilepsy Foundation. The Galler family was running the show; almost every member of their family spoke passionately about the cause and provided us with motivation for running. It was inspiring to learn about the nature of epilepsy and the cutting edge treatments that the foundation is supporting. There was so much Sharon pride in the room and I felt so privileged to be part of it.

Pumped with inspiration, I woke up early the next morning to run along with my little brother Doron, who recently became a commander in the IDF. As you can imagine, he is in great shape and he pushed me to run faster and harder than I usually do. Let’s just say that I was sore for a few days afterwards.

Through the amazing leadership of Elisha Galler, team Hope Time Cure was dedicated in memory of Ezra Schwartz z”tkl. Ruth spoke movingly about Ezra and how we should feel his spirit pushing us up the hills of Yerushalayim. The team jerseys had on their backs the words: “In loving memory of Ezra Schwartz.” It was emotional and moving for me to see hundreds of these purple shirts during the race, as we moved through the crowds of runners.

Here are a few pictures. The first is a picture of my brother and me as we left the old city through Sha’ar Tzion during the race, and the second is a post-race picture of many of the Sharonites who joined for the run.

While the Marathon was fun and meaningful, the main reason for my last minute trip to Israel was to stand with Ruth as she testified in the sentencing on Sunday morning. There were many unpleasant sights and emotions during the day that are too painful to put into words, but I will for now share two extraordinary moments that left me feeling proud and honored. 

The first happened as the Israeli prosecutor was reading the charges against the terrorist. Included in the charges was the murder of a 24-year-old Palestinian named Shadi Arafeh. His family did not come to the trial because, as we were told, they did not want to press charges. They were made to believe that the IDF was responsible for their son’s death, not the terrorist. Nevertheless, the Israeli prosecutor, based on clear evidence, chose to represent the family and to seek justice on their behalf. As the charges were being read, I noticed that every time the name “Shadi Arafeh” was mentioned, the prosecutor made sure to say “zichrono livraha- may his memory be a blessing.”

This gesture of humanity was stunning. It reflected the dignity of the Jewish state and its moral core.  It reflected the paramount Jewish value placed on human life, regardless of race, religion and ethnicity. This deeply Jewish moral sensibility was also present in the actual verdict which quoted from several Jewish sources, including the Mishna in Sanhedrin 4:5 about the absolute uniqueness and sanctity of every human life. The prosecutor gave me a copy (in Hebrew) of the verdict (which is public record) and I can share it with anyone who would like to read it.

The second moment happened just as we were leaving the Ofer Prison, where the trial took place. The Israeli prosecutor who had just successfully argued and achieved the most severe punishment possible under the law, 4 consecutive life sentences, pulled Ruth aside. I saw him remove something from the lapel of his IDF uniform and hand it to Ruth. When we got in the car, I learned that this was a pin that the prosecutor had earned for his personal bravery during combat in Operation Protective Edge in 2014. He wanted Ruth to have it because he was so inspired by her bravery that morning.

Indeed, he was correct. Here is my testimony, what I witnessed that morning: With power and poise, Ruth stood 20 feet from the terrorist and poignantly described her little boy. Her words (which were posted on Facebook for everyone to read) were truly beautiful and impacted the judges and everyone else sitting in that small military courtroom. The scene was objectively hideous with the terrorist and his family present, but Ruth was able to comport herself with exquisite nobility. While I was grasping onto my chair to prevent myself from verbally or physically acting upon the rage I felt inside, I witnessed bravery in the face savagery, dignity in the face of dehumanization, goodness in the face of evil, hope in the face of darkness, honor in the face degradation, humanity in the face of inhumanity.

The experience changed me. It was heartbreaking, humbling and holy. It made me inexplicably proud to a be Jew, a member of Am Yisrael and a believer in Medinat Yisrael.

On the ride back from the prison to our hotel in Yerushalayim, we learned that over Shabbat in our shul, Libi and Matt Rides had named their son Ezra, in memory of Ezra Schwartz z’tkl. The timing could not have been more meaningful. This is the power of community and the power of the Jewish people. Together, we cry and we mourn, we smile and we celebrate. May we do more of the latter than the former.


Rabbi Noah Cheses

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